Tag Archives: electricity

Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

Reaping The Whirlwind Of Spam Rage

A painful story of what can happen when you let your spam rage get the better of you.

Rachel Buchman was a reporter with National Public Radio affiliate WHYY when she tried to get off a mailing list from conservative for-profit company www.Laptoplobbyist.com, according to a piece she wrote for the Philadelphia Weekly.

More annoying than the emails themselves is the frightening inability to get off the lists that generate them. I tried to unsubscribe from Laptoplobbyist.com’s e-newsletter list. It didn’t work. Then I began deleting the emails. Eventually, I felt forced to contact them directly.

I called the number at the bottom of the last email I received.

An answering machine picked up. I was incensed that I wasn’t going to finally get to ask a real person to remove me from the list. The answering machine asked the caller to leave a name and number, and without thinking, that’s what I did.

The message she left included not only her name and number but “called the staff at Laptoplobbyist.com horrible people and wished their children ill”. She writes, “It was a terrible message, and I apologize to anyone I offended.” (If you really need to read what she said in full, Family.org carries it. (There’s an interesting piece from the Blue Lemur here on the incident, and LaptopLobbyist itself.)

A few days later all hell broke loose as the head of Laptoplobbyist.com called to tell her he’d be campaigning to have her fired. “The man said I represented the “liberal media,” and that I therefore had no right to report the news.” He turned the voicemail into an mp3 file (not sure if it’s still active) and “sent it out to the people on the company’s list, the media and my employer. He’d post it to Laptoplobbyist.com later in the week.”

Although Buchman was asked by her boss to give an apology, which she said she would gladly do, “the apology wasn’t brought up at work the next day when my professional relationship with WHYY ended.” No futher explanation is given, although some accounts say she quit before she was fired.  “Nothing takes away what I did or what I said. I acted in anger, and that was wrong,” she writes. “But actively seeking to destroy my life and career was not warranted.”

I can’t help feeling sorry for Buchman. A dumb thing it was that she did, but I’ve yelled at people on the phone before (sorry staff from banks, electricity companies, airlines, phone companies, and relatives) and said things I probably shouldn’t have said. Let’s hope no one recorded them. Oh, and I hope those she’s offended accept her apologies and that she finds another job.

‘Say ‘Five’ After The Tone If You Want To Curse One Of Our Customer Service Computers’

The good news: We don’t have to use those silly touch-tone menus anymore when we call our friendly utility. Now we can speak to a real computer.

A report by Chartwell, an industry research service, says that more and more utilities “are implementing or investigating speech recognition for their interactive voice response units, and advocates say the technology has the potential to revolutionize automated customer service”. What this ‘revolution’ means, it turns out, is that customers can use voice recognition to report outages, or even conduct “customer self-service” (I love that idea! Why didn’t I think of that?) such as billing, payments and updating account information. As someone who has just tried to resolve some thorny billing problems relating to my mother’s poor choice of electricity and gas utility in the UK, I can only say: Yeehar!

Here’s Dennis Smith, Research Director & Manager of Chartwell’s CIS & Customer Service Research Series: “Speech recognition is a progressive customer self-service tool that can be extremely valuable to a utility, provided it is designed correctly.” Incorrect designs are, among other things, unfriendly self-help service menus. Oh. So we don’t get to chat with a computer, we get to say ‘two’ instead of pressing two on our touch tone phone. That’s progress.

This is another bit I like: The report includes case studies on what it calls ‘progressive utilities’ (as opposed to what? ‘Regressive utilities’? ‘Incorrect thinking utilities’?) utilizing speech recognition technology. One, We Energies, “after concluding that many of its incoming calls related to billing or payments, implemented a speech system in order to offer customers a more personal and prompt way to conduct business without the assistance of a customer service representative (CSR)”. I am particularly happy the customer service representative has an abbreviation: Given it’s the only one in the report I can only assume that assigning an abbreviation is what happens prior to downsizing. And how, exactly, can you have a ‘personal’ way to conduct business using a computer? More personal than what? Pressing the keypads on your phone until they sink into the plastic moulding?

Look, I’m a big fan of computers, and I’m probably still reeling from trying to find an email address I could write to to complain (there wasn’t one; even the website wouldn’t recognise my Mozilla  browser and suggested I upgrade. You’re a utility, for God’s sake! You’re selling electricity! It’s not as if you’re selling Porsches, or smartphones! What if I was some elderly person wanting to check my electricity bill? Jeez) but I don’t get it. I always hoped that computerisation would free up staff so they could talk to customers, find out what’s bugging them, try to make things better. I guess that’s never going to happen now. We’re going to be sitting there in the dark, the electricity long gone out, the gas fire cold, saying ‘four… six… six…. I said SIX’, our voices echoing down the hallways, for eternity. Please, give me an CSR. I really need a CSR.

You can buy the full report, Speech-Enabled Customer Service Applications in the Utility Industry for $350 here.